For the most part, Benedict praised the health of the Church in Italy.
VERONA, Italy (AP) -- Pope Benedict XVI urged Italians on Thursday to remain faithful to their Christian traditions, saying they can be examples for the world and enable dialogue with other cultures that are deeply religious.
In an hourlong speech to Italian bishops and lay leaders, Benedict warned that a secular shift in the West had led to threats to traditional families, including "other forms of unions," a reference to gay marriage.
But overall, he praised the health of the Catholic Church in Italy, saying "the Christian traditions are often deeply rooted and continue to produce fruit." The pope was addressing a national church convention in the northern city of Verona.
Benedict has been stressing the need for dialogue between religions and cultures, which he has said was the point of his speech in Germany last month that angered the Muslim world for its references to Islam and violence.
He said that cultures in which "God is excluded" -- referring to a secularized West -- "were not able to establish a real dialogue with other cultures in which the religious dimension is strongly present."
Benedict received a standing ovation from the audience of several hundred at the Verona fairgrounds. Later Thursday, he celebrated an open-air Mass in a soccer stadium before an estimated 50,000 people, including Premier Romano Prodi and former Premier Silvio Berlusconi, the opposition leader.
Prodi was heckled from the stands by a small number of participants as he left the stadium. Some Catholics resent the liberal positions of Prodi, a Catholic who leads a center-left coalition.
The pope also reiterated the church's opposition to abortion and euthanasia, saying human life must be protected "in all its phases, from conception to natural death." Abortion is legal in Italy; euthanasia is not, but it is being debated by politicians.
He called on lay people to defend against "the risk of political choices and laws that go against the fundamental values ... rooted in the nature of the human being." He said it was up to lay Catholics to fight the battle, saying the church is not a "political agent."
The national church convention is the first since 1995 and only the fourth in the past 30 years.
The bishops are a powerful force in Italy, where more than 90 percent of the country's 58 million citizens are at least nominally Catholic.
The Catholic Church kept a low profile after the Christian Democrats, with whom the Vatican had close ties, collapsed under corruption scandals in the early 1990s. But the bishops appear emboldened after a successful campaign last year asking Italians to boycott a referendum to ease restrictions on assisted fertility.
Prodi's coalition includes communist parties and radicals, who often denounce what they consider the church's interference in Italian affairs. But after an audience with Benedict last week, Prodi said "there aren't any controversies" between the Vatican and Italy.
Prodi's electoral platform included a pledge to give some legal status to unmarried couples, but it stopped short of endorsing gay marriage, which the Vatican firmly opposes.
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